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Autonomy Degrees – Making Order in the World of Maritime Shipping

February 28, 2024

Dor Raviv, Co-Founder & CTO, Orca AI

In the maritime industry, degrees of autonomy represent the level of technological involvement in shipping operations, ranging from manual control to full autonomy. This progression signifies significant technological advancements, such as the transition from manual navigation to partial autonomy systems like autopilot, with the adoption of autonomous vessel navigation systems. However, the concept of autonomy degrees is a nuanced continuum with different shades of autonomy, and each step towards higher autonomy involves substantial developments in AI and machine learning capabilities, ultimately leading to more efficient, safer, and environmentally friendly shipping practices.

When analyzing the current industry discourse regarding degrees of autonomy in shipping, it is evident that vague and unclear definitions pose a significant challenge. There are no universally accepted boundaries separating these degrees of autonomy, and the lines are often blurred, with different interpretations existing among industry stakeholders. While some classification societies identify as few as four degrees of autonomy, others break it down into as many as seven, and some include considerations of digitalized capabilities while others address ship-to-shore connectivity. Therefore, harmonization of taxonomy definitions and regulatory updates is critical to appropriately reflect the nuances of autonomous navigation in the maritime industry.

The current classification landscape

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) was the pioneer in conceptualizing the ‘degrees’ of autonomy for ships:

Autonomy levelSeafarers onboardVessel remotely controlledReal-time connectivity required
Ships with automated processes and decision supportYesNoNot necessarily, depending on the extent of automation and decision support systems.
Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on boardYesYesYes, to facilitate communication between onboard personnel and remote operators.
Remotely controlled ships without seafarers on boardNoYesYes, for continuous communication and control of the vessel from a remote location.
Fully autonomous shipsNoNoNot necessarily, vessel itself operates independently without the need for direct human intervention.

The distinction between IMO’s definition and those of classification societies such as DNV, Lloyd’s Register (LR), Bureau Veritas (BV) and OneSea lies in their approach to categorizing levels of autonomy in ship operations. IMO’s definition outlines four degrees of autonomy, primarily focusing on the level of remote-controlled operations. In contrast, classification societies provide more nuanced definitions, considering factors such as the extent of system decision support, digital capabilities, and the location of decision-making authority. These differences reflect varying perspectives on the integration of technology, human oversight, ship-to-shore connectivity, collision regulations, assisted navigation, and decision-making processes in autonomous shipping operations.


DNV’s scale focuses on providing clarity on the extent of reliance on automated systems for decision-making, categorizing functions based on whether they are manually operated, system decision-supported, or fully autonomous.

Lloyd’s Register

LR’s scale offers a more detailed breakdown, with seven defined autonomy degrees, which encompass variations in decision support and levels of human supervision, allowing for a nuanced understanding of autonomy levels.

Bureau Veritas

BV’s scale introduces additional degrees, such as human-directed and human-delegated systems blending human and automated decision-making, presenting a more nuanced perspective on autonomy levels (while DNV and LR scales generally progress from manual control to full automation).

One Sea

One Sea’s taxonomy uniquely distinguishes between autonomous and remote-controlled operations, emphasizing that human operator location doesn’t solely dictate the taxonomy of automation and autonomy. It highlights cognitive and sensory human involvement through elements like ‘hands-on/off,’ ‘eyes on/off,’ and ‘mind on/off’. 

The Need for Clarity Around Degrees of Autonomy

The adoption of maritime autonomous navigation systems in shipping highlights the critical need for a clear understanding of autonomy levels within the sector. This shared understanding is vital not just for better communication, it also fosters collaboration among stakeholders like regulatory bodies, insurers, shipbuilders, and operators, through a standardized language that mitigates misunderstandings and promotes effective discussions.

Recognizing the different degrees of autonomy helps industry participants identify potential risks at each level, aiding in the creation of efficient risk management strategies and ensuring the safety of maritime operations. Additionally, defining autonomy levels encourages innovation by offering a roadmap for technological advancements, thereby improving operational efficiency and safety. Providing clarity on regulatory requirements and expectations allows for smoother integration of autonomous technologies into shipping practices, reducing time to market. 

Accurate definitions of autonomy levels are crucial for designing targeted training programs for maritime professionals, preparing them with the skills and knowledge necessary as the industry evolves towards greater autonomy. Such clarity supports companies in regulatory compliance and in optimizing human-machine interactions, moving from decision support systems to complete autonomy. Ultimately, standardizing these definitions is key to the future growth and development of the maritime industry.

The Future of Autonomous Navigation in Shipping

The promise of autonomous navigation in the maritime industry brings visions of safer, more efficient, and environmentally friendly shipping. However, these visions can only become reality if the industry can establish common ground on the definitions for the various degrees of autonomy. A collaborative effort from all stakeholders is essential to foster a shared understanding of autonomy levels. Regulatory bodies, in particular, play a vital role. They are responsible for revising current laws and conventions to reflect the emergence of autonomous navigation and its implications.

Situational awareness systems in shipping will continue to evolve, and their applications will become more complex. Therefore, an adaptable framework is needed to accommodate these advancements and interpret their impact on degrees of autonomy. It’s about creating an evolving map that can guide stakeholders in navigating the sea of autonomous technologies as they become more advanced and sophisticated.